Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Democrats' Palin Strategy: A Bridge to Nowhere!


On August 31, I argued that, in order to counter John McCain, the Democrats needed to respond seriously to Sara Palin and engage her public policy record and political ideology. At that time, Democrats were salivating and laughing over McCain’s supposedly tragic decision to select Palin as his running mate. Liberals ridiculed her as Dan Quayle in a dress, and jokes and rumors about Palin and her family spread rapidly.

Well, to date the Democrats have done a poor job handling Palin (and McCain). Rather than accepting Palin as a serious contender and confronting her on policy and ideology, they have instead treated her, at best, as political prey. But their attacks have backfired. Each new supposedly "embarrassing" media and liberal-blogger tidbit concerning Palin has helped energize Republicans and iconize Palin. This is a losing strategy, and many polls show that white women have dramatically shifted towards McCain, giving him a tremendous surge in national and state polls.

Instead of scrutinizing McCain’s policy agenda, liberals have conducted a fishing expedition, canvassing Alaska for negative information on Palin. But undecided voters need to hear a comprehensive critique of McCain’s social and economic agenda and the alternatives the Democrats offer. Liberals, however, have wasted their resources uncovering alleged book burnings, igniting baby-mama dramas, bashing the "Bridge to Nowhere," and (mis)informing the public that Palin has slashed special education budgets, that she was a member of an Alaska secessionist movement, and (most alarmingly) that she once endorsed the neo-conservative Patrick Buchanan! Were Palin a Democrat, this amount of digging would make Ken Starr proud. Perhaps the Democrats have forgotten that it took the Republicans six years of slinging to discover something that seriously damaged Bill Clinton, but he nevertheless remained standing. The 2008 presidential election takes place in less than eight weeks.

In the rush to discredit Palin, Democrats and liberals have come across as acutely unsophisticated. The scandalous information about Palin that they have disseminated undoubtedly enhances foot traffic and debates on liberal blogs, but it does not tell skeptical voters why they should prefer Obama over McCain. In fact, the frenzied attention given to Palin diverts critical scrutiny away from McCain and his policies. Furthermore, it appears that much of the liberal narrative against Palin is false or misleading. Yesterday, the nonpartisan and respected Factcheck.org released a comprehensive rebuttal of many of the most infamous allegations concerning Palin (http://www.factcheck.org/elections-2008/sliming_palin.html). This embarrassing development will only reinforce McCain’s portrayal of the media as biased against Republicans.

Unfortunately, smearing Palin seems like a permanent campaign strategy. The Wall Street Journal reports that Democrats have already dispatched 30 lawyers and investigators to Alaska in search of damming items in Palin’s past (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122098190668515511.html?mod=opinion_journal_political_diary). Because 80% of Alaskans view Palin favorably, one could safely assume that the Democrats’ quest for campaign-ending secrets will probably end up as cold as an Alaska winter.

So what should Democrats do? Instead of engaging in trivial pursuits, they should adhere to their script that highlights the vital differences between Obama and McCain. They powerfully detailed these differences during the Denver convention. Since Palin’s nomination, they have been wandering aimlessly.

Palin is running for vice president, and that’s how Democrats should treat her. They have powerful arguments against McCain. His rigid anti-choice perspective deviates from mainstream public opinion. His tax cuts for the wealthy will only increase the gap between rich and poor and drain the government of revenue that could go towards balancing the Republicans’ record budget deficit and that could eventually help finance important social services that a majority of the electorate supports. McCain’s closeness to the Bush administration and its policies should trouble all rational voters. And while there is a danger in billing McCain as Bush III (McCain could write his own narrative – as he has been doing), this strategy is far more effective than unleashing bloodhounds on Palin. Furthermore, McCain’s sharp turn to the right allows Democrats to portray him as a "waffler," which always seems to work with voters. Their failure to exploit this vulnerability is inexplicable. Palin has mobilized the party’s conservative base, who feared McCain due to his prior moderate stances on some issues. But Palin is not running for president; McCain is (seems elementary, but the Democrats have misunderstood this basic point).

While Democrats try to destroy Palin’s star power, McCain the "maverick" has managed to co-opt Obama’s "change" message. A snappy rebuttal might sound like this: "The only things McCain has changed during his career are his policy positions and promises to voters – just to win an election" (not the most elegant stump language, but I’m a law professor, not a politician). The bickering over Palin keeps the Democrats from defining McCain, but it allows McCain to define the Democrats as petty and sexist.

Speaking of sexism, Republicans have cynically manipulated gender equality in order to woo women voters. During Palin’s first media appearance as a vice presidential candidate, she referenced Hillary Clinton’s historic campaign. Republicans have also (rightfully) criticized commentators who question whether Palin could serve as vice president and raise five children.

The latest gender drama – over Obama’s cheesy observation that even with "lipstick," a pig is still a pig – ensures that this campaign will remain surreal and insane. The commonly used expression was clearly innocuous, but in a new commercial called "Lipstick," McCain, demonstrating a tremendous amount of chutzpah, accuses Obama of sexism. Obama and other Democrats have just dismissed the entire matter, denying any sexist intent. But the Democrats seem more reluctant to talk about sexism than the Republicans. The antiracist and antisexist party – whose convention oozed with "diversity" – should market its relative strength on civil rights issues. In response to McCain’s Lipstick ad, Obama could have demonstrated how McCain’s conservative policies would harm women. McCain spoke out against the Ledbetter Act (he was absent for the vote), which would have reversed a conservative Supreme Court ruling that narrowly construed the statute of limitations doctrine in pay equity cases. Now, pay-equity plaintiffs have only 180 days from the original date of discrimination (i.e., when the illegal salary decision was initially made) to bring their claims. In most instances, however, a plaintiff will not discover that she has in fact suffered discrimination until it is too late to obtain legal redress. McCain also promises to appoint conservative jurists who would undoubtedly continue to rule against victims of sex discrimination.

Criticism of McCain’s anti-choice and pro-war stances, his refusal to develop a meaningful health care reform agenda, and many other of his policies would likely cause some women to rethink their recent shift towards the Republican nominee. By getting enmeshed in Palinmania, the Democrats are squandering the opportunity to demonstrate why undecided voters should run from, not towards, McCain.

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